Down by the winning post, away from the cameras and the frenzy, Frankie Dettori’s immediate reaction captured it all.
‘Hollywood,’ he gasped, shaking his head. ‘This is Hollywood.’
He would go on to say plenty more, as microphones were thrust in front of him. Dettori has embraced the limelight all through his glittering career, occasionally leaving you feeling what you saw in front of the cameras was pre-rehearsed, but in this remarkable moment it was all so raw.
Nobody could quite believe what had happened. Ground staff paused what they were doing: the divots could wait to be replaced, this scene had to be taken in. Who could blame them? Yards away, a sporting great was as dumbfounded as the rest of us by what had happened.
The record books will say Dettori was King Of Steel’s partner when they won the 2023 QIPCO British Champion Stakes by three-quarters of a length from Via Sistina but those bare facts do nothing to explain the romance of the narrative.
Frankie Dettori bid farewell to British racing in style as he won the Qipco Champions Stakes
Dettori performed his trademark flying dismount after victory in his last ever ride in the UK
He celebrated his last-to-first triumph on King Of Steel by raising his fist in the air in jubilation
Dettori has done extraordinary things at Ascot, we all know this, yet this was on a different level. He’s approaching his 53rd birthday and has been around top level sport to know that athletes rarely get what they want when closing a chapter in their career.
Don Bradman got a second-ball duck in his final test in 1948, preventing Australia’s greatest batsman finishing with an average of 100; Gary Lineker missed a Wembley penalty against Brazil in 1992 that stopped him drawing level with Sir Bobby Charlton on 49 England goals, at the time a record.
So when King Of Steel moved slowly out of the stalls and found himself at the back of the field, with sods of turf being kicked back in his face, you didn’t give Dettori much hope of bowing out with the success that he and 30,369 crowd craved.
Even when the field swung for home, Dettori – in the purple silks of Kia Joorabchin’s Amo Racing – efforts looked to be in vain. He was nudging and coaxing his partner but it seemed like a bridge too far. Had this been a movie, you might have foresaw one last twist but not here.
Then something incredible happened. Suddenly King Of Steel began to devour the ground, the stands came alive and noisily implored him to push with all he had and, in the final 50 yards, they forged ahead. It really was staggering to witness.
This is why we watch sport: we want to see our football teams conjure remarkable comebacks or our cricket teams chase down improbable targets and at Ascot all anyone wanted to see was Dettori comeback a winner on his last ride before he goes to America.
And, thrillingly, he had done it. He couldn’t take it all in, none of us could, but what this proved was the capacity for sport to leave us breathless is infinite when you have characters with talent and charisma of someone such as Dettori.
‘Magic,’ gasped Roger Varian, King Of Steel’s trainer. ‘It was just magic.’
It had been an educational afternoon, standing inside the rails, watching the Italian closely on what was billed as his goodbye to British horseracing. When he trotted Trawlerman out for the first race, at 110pm, a rainbow appeared through the clouds: 10 minutes later, Dettori had found a pot of gold.
His ebullience personified then, whooping and hollering after he conjured a remarkable surge from John Gosden’s stablemate to pilfer the British Champions Long Distance Cup. The ride he produced was described as “genius” by the gelding’s trainer.
‘You never know,’ said Gosden. ‘He might have a double.’
Just before 2pm, however, his mood – like the weather – had turned. Kinross, looked to have come with a sweeping run to retain the British Champions Sprint but, in the final 50 yards, Art Power – a doughty battler with conditions to suit – got back up to leave Dettori crestfallen.
As he pulled up, he circled around on Kinross, so he could watch two replays of the closing stages. His eyes narrowed and his lips pursed as he watched the footage in slow motion. He couldn’t quite believe how his challenge had not carried them to glory.
‘F***!’ he yelled, chastising himself. ‘F***!’
Dettori surged late with Trawlerman to win the British Champions Long Distance Cup at Ascot
Dettori has opted to move to California to ride full-time during the upcoming winter season
The veteran jockey praised the atmosphere at Ascot after coming from behind to win
When he dismounted, the sensible thing to do was leave him to come around rather than ask for an immediate reaction. The same was true after Free Wind and Chaldean, his next mounts in the following races, were comfortably beaten.
But there would be one last chance for glory – and how he took it. With all his guile, all his power, Dettori lifted King Of Steel home to spark scenes not witnessed at this racecourse since Frankel’s emotional success in this same race in 2012.
‘He’s The King of Ascot – he just deserves it,’ said an emotional Joorabchin. ‘I can’t believe it.’
None of us could, not even Dettori. In time, though, it will sink in. And the realisation will dawn that we witnessed a genuine Hollywood ending.